Cover Story: Improving the Breed – How Remanufacturers Build Better Than OE
In a perfect world, remanufacturing auto parts to be as good as the original equipment manufacturers made them would be good enough. But, as experience has shown, the auto parts business operates in anything but a perfect environment.Electrical system components come to mind. Many remanufacturers have found that starters and alternators are under greater demands when engines don't start as quickly as they did when new, and the stress on alternators can increase as batteries, connections and other components deteriorate and their demands for power increase.
The blue anodized sleeves on the W-body rear caliper at right are visible evidence of a remanufacturing enhancement to the original design. Unlike the steel OE sleeves they replace, they aren’t prone to the corrosion that can seize the calipers solid in as little as 12 months. Fenwick Automotive, which employs the method, says it has dropped 12-month failure rates from 12% to 2%.
For example, a Ford IAR alternator will still attempt to charge a poorly performing battery that is down to 9 to 10 volts and will burn itself out in as little as 10 minutes. The main reason the alternator allows itself to do this is that there is no protection within the alternator to stop it. The unit will, quite literally, commit suicide trying to charge a bad battery.
In less severe circumstances, component life may still be shortened, breeding solutions that include different bearing designs, improved cooling, and internal protections in some components where the OE design included none.
There are really two issues when determining how to remanufacture a particular part: “Why did it fail?” and “What is its expected life?” From these two questions flows a process of reverse engineering and cost-benefit analysis that belies the seeming simplicity of many of the solutions.
For remanufacturers, it’s a bit of a detective game.
“We try to perform a reverse engineering process,” says Dr. Nabil Nasir, director of the National Center for Remanufacturing and Resource Recovery in Rochester, N.Y. He says that many remanufacturers use the center to help them to determine the finer details of failure and to develop a process for remanufacturing parts that solves problems with the original designs. “It is more of a learning process, to actually close the loop to review how well the product fared, and feed that back into the design process. There are a lot of examples. There are many parts with structural issues of excessive wear or design errors.” Typically, he says, original equipment designs are judged acceptable if they perform well through the warranty period. For the aftermarket, that’s just the beginning of the product life cycle. And since so many of the systems on a car may be less than optimum by that point, an improved component is practically a requirement.
Sometimes, of course, the OE design doesn’t work out so well, even over the short term. Still, many of the solutions are quite simple in execution.
Take the rear calipers from the GM W-body models (Lumina, Regal, Cutlass, and Grand Prix). Right from the get-go, these suffered problems of corrosion where the slide pins and sleeves meet. If you’re presented with a caliper that has seized on its slide pins and is severely corroded after only 12 months on the road, how do you determine what the cause of the problem is?
As it turns out, it was a combination of moisture getting in and the fact that steel slide pins were used. The slide pins and sleeves would become seized as a result of a galvanic reaction, corrosion, and the fact that the products of that corrosion would turn the lubricant to sludge. Once the gap between the slide pin and the sleeve was filled up with this junk, it wouldn’t move.
“We have done quite a bit of work which has improved the reliability of the part,” says Ray LaCourse, director of quality assurance for Fenwick Automotive Products. The slide pins were seizing and the warranty was going through the roof. We wound up coming up with a fix that used a different type of material on the sleeves and a different grommet. It really reduced warranty.” LaCourse says that at OE, warranty on a 12-month period was at 12% before the change. “Since we made the change, warranty is down under 2%.”
Another brake-related improvement was made to the calipers on the Ford F-250 models (1988 to 1995). “The OE uses a standard neoprene dust boot,” says Mark Zemlicka, product manager, American Remanufacturers, Inc. “What happens on the F-250 is that it is a bubble-type seal. It actually sits against the backing plate of the brake pad. Those plates get to 800 to 900F and the seal cracks. Then all the brake dust gets inside and that gums up the sealing ring. What that does is make it so that the piston doesn’t want to retract enough,” says Zemlicka. The result is what is commonly referred to as a “lazy caliper.”
“We took a lot of calls on this and started asking around.” He says that ARI found that silicone rubber withstands the heat better and won’t crack under those conditions. “The seals have gone from an expected life of 8,000 to 10,000 miles up to 30,000 to 40,000 miles. It’s more expensive, but it’s worth it.” He says that this fix has made its way through the industry and all the way back to Ford.
“Ford has actually come out with another boot too. They’ve got a version, but that piece was actually brought up in the aftermarket before it was brought up at the OE level.”
Having OEMs adopt aftermarket solutions is something that the aftermarket in general and the remanufacturing industry in particular can be proud of, but it’s not restricted to just that one example.
Cardone’s analysis of ECC failures determined, for example, that resistor chips were lifting off the circuit board. When Cardone’s engineers looked at the problem, they traced its cause to the conformal coating used. Conformal coating protects a circuit board from corrosion and protects and insulates it to prevent premature failure. What they found was that the conformal coating that was used originally lost its ability to expand and contract at the same rate as the circuit board when tested under fluctuating temperatures. This caused the resistor chips to be pried off the board when the coating seeped under them. With a higher quality conformal coating, this no longer occurs, and the OEM has adopted this fix. In addition, all solder connections are reflowed to ensure their integrity. The outcome is that the ECC lasts longer than the original unit and can be produced more efficiently, too.
There are a number of fixes such as this which are critical to the long-term performance of components, but are not readily detectable by the counterperson or the technician installing the part. Clues to the problems come from warranty rates and inspections of defects and questions on technical hot lines, but sometimes it’s hard to trace the origin of problems.
“When people have problems, you ask what you can do to enhance the parts,” says Zemlicka. “We find out a lot of odd things.” On Subaru drive shafts, for example, ARI was seeing inboard CV joints showing signs of being exposed to excessive heat, resulting in heat checking and failed boots. “What we finally found was that the exhaust goes right around the inboard joint. On the OE exhaust there is a heat shield that goes right around the OE joint. But the OE exhaust is expensive, and some of the cheaper aftermarket replacements don’t have the heat shield, so the boot heats up so much that it cracks. We have a silicone boot that takes care of the problem, but it shows how people can change something and don’t understand how it affects something else. It’s hard for us to make that connection. It’s even harder for the guy out there to make that link.”
One area where the aftermarket did make a link years ago is the business of remanufacturing power rack and pinion units. It was recognised that the Teflon spool valve seals wore grooves in the aluminium pinion shaft’s bore, also called the tower, which was a leading cause of the “morning sickness” suffered by so many cars. The solution arrived at was to bore out the shaft and insert a steel tube that provided a good surface and resisted this grooving. What you can’t see is this enhancement. What you can notice is the drop in failure rates.
Joel Fenwick, vice-president of purchasing, Fenwick Automotive, says that he expects a similar scenario to emerge from the way the company has begun remanufacturing steering racks for the Ford Aerostar. “One thing we’ve done, and this is a first, we are now sleeving the long section, the shaft of the rack. The reason is that Aerostar racks are notorious for coming back with grooving where the centering piston rests.” That component of the rack, also referred to as the power piston ring and power piston chamber seals, are also prone to internal leakage. Through years of usage, a 50-thou to 60-thou depression forms which allows an unacceptable amount of fluid bypass. Previously such racks would be scrapped because they would be destined to come back early.
“The cores are very expensive, and to scrap out a housing is to scrap out a core. We’ve brought these housings back to life,” says Fenwick.
Sometimes, of course, it’s not really about faulty design, but about old technology. Walt Ruba, vice-president, engineering, Crown Remanufacturing Inc. says that his company has found the best way to ensure that older imports can perform properly and meet emissions levels is to rethink the ignition components.
“We take electronics that have been designed in the sixties and seventies and redesign them using new technology. Nissan ignitions are a good example. They were designed with some 40 to 50 components. The new one only has seven or eight components and it gives a more stable signal. The old car may have a lot more wear and tear, but because we are able to monitor the ignition better, it can still pass emission tests,” says Ruba. Sometimes reverse engineering the original unit can be a bit mystifying.
“First you have to get into the head of the original designer, why he did what he did. Nine out of ten times, it was because those were the components available to him. Sometimes you wonder why. I guess each engineer has its budgets and its requirements. Then we ask what the computer really wants to see. What we do is try to design tighter control for the computer, so the computer doesn’t have to decide which is a good signal and a bad signal.
“A lot of the Mitsubishi vehicles have a problem with the ignition and the coil,” he says by way of example. “So, we change the ignition pickup technology from Hall Effect to optical. The signal is a lot sharper, more controlled and more stable.”
Ruba says this approach not only provides a better, more reliable part, but improves availability and affordability, too.
“It definitely does give the consumer a lot more product availability. If you had to depend on getting what Japan could sell to us, we couldn’t offer the product at the price the consumer needs.” In some cases, the cost for such components from the car dealer can be as much as half the value of the older car. Without a lower cost option, the car is likely pulled off the road, taking with it its aftermarket potential.
“That’s why we go through all this trouble; to keep this old fleet available to the consumer. That is the primary goal.”
The reality is, however, that most of these types of solutions aren’t readily apparent to the naked eye, hidden as they are inside the components themselves. Nonetheless, the process continues. The end result for the aftermarket is components that are a cost-effective alternative to the original equipment option, with the added bonus that they are better built than the original designs and can ultimately keep the consumer’s car on the road longer.
They also keep technicians happier because they reduce warranty comebacks, and that keeps their confidence level in your business high.
And those are things you can see without even having to look too hard.